When it comes to volunteering to help kids in foster care and the kinship, foster and adoptive parents who care for them, Arnie Eby is all in. That’s why he didn’t hesitate when National Foster Parent Association (NFPA) Executive Director Irene Clements asked him to fill in as an auctioneer for their annual quilt auction fundraiser a few years ago.
“I had never auctioned anything before in my life,” Eby said in a conversation with Fostering Families Today. “It was one of those situations where we started something and it got better.”
Now the 57-year-old Maryland resident is filling in again, this time as NFPA’s executive director beginning this month, when 74-year-old Clements retires after serving in that role since 2012. Eby said he’s hopeful to draw on his prior successes fundraising for critical causes — “that across the course of time it continues to get better, just like those auctions.”
Eby, who has been fostering with his wife Donna, says he “never dreamed” he’d end up where he is today after attending his first PRIDE class more than two decades ago. But a casual comment from Howard Davidson, founder of the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law, planted the seeds of Eby’s future, telling him, “you could be the executive director of that group one day.”
The Ebys were founding members of the Maryland Resource Parent Association, created in 2004 and he’s served as the executive director of that organization for almost two years.
Colleague Marcus Stallworth has served on the NFPA board with Eby, and on various other committees through their professional work at the Child Welfare League of America.
“Arnie’s going to be stepping into some big shoes for sure, but I think some of those shoes will create a lane for him to walk in and opportunities for him to make his own tracks,” Stallworth said.
Clements, NFPA’s outgoing executive director, has worked side-by-side with Eby the last few months to ensure a smooth transition of leadership.
Clements said when she was appointed in 2012, the organization lacked leadership and money and considered dissolving the group. She supports Eby’s appointment and sees good things ahead for both he and NFPA as it celebrates 50 years in operation this year.
“I’m forecasting some awesome stuff because Arnie manages in a very different way than I do,” Clements said. “He brings in this wonderful new fresh way of looking at things. He’s a current foster parent. He understands the realities of now.”
One of those realities is the implementation of the federal Family First Prevention Services Act, which will require even more foster family resource homes that “have a specific set of skills” and provide “an enhanced level of support,” Eby said. “And I think a large part of what NFPA needs to do is continue to advocate for those kinds of supports across the next few years.”
In addition, federal funds being renewed will create “opportunities to potentially influence recruitment and retention dollars or policy,” Eby said. A strengthening push for foster families to work more closely with birth families toward reunification will require additional training and enhanced recruitment to educate them on how to offer that support.
Eby says one way to do this is to “work with the Council of State Affiliates to grow the capacity of those state associations,” supporting more resource families in each state. NFPA currently has about 30 state associations it partners with through its Council of State Affiliates, as well as 1,000 individual members.
But there are also grave challenges ahead: As the pandemic stretches into its second year, foster, adoptive and kinship parents are strained like never before. Surveys from state affiliate associations show resource families are leaving the profession.
One survey from the Maryland Resource Parent Association showed that “25% of foster families said their current placement was their last placement,” Eby said. Another statistic he looked at from one particular county showed “two families were licensed in a month and 10 families closed their homes.”
“That brings to me the reality that the recruitment of new families and the retention of some of the wisdom and the experience the older or the longer-term families have” will be lost as more foster families give up their licenses, Eby said.
Early in the pandemic, resource families were among some of the hardest impacted as they lost access to daycare and not only navigated their own work from home challenges, but also served as teachers in the virtual schooling environment. They transitioned to online court hearings, virtual visitation with biological families and educational setbacks for the children in their homes.
Seeing these challenges, NFPA was quick to jump in, creating its online training institute and popular virtual “Coffee with Caregivers” conversations that Clements has hosted for the past year — an example of how she has worked closely with colleagues to enhance the services NFPA provides.
Eileen Mayers Pasztor has known Clements since the 1970s when Clements first attended a training she offered as a young social worker.
“Probably everyone who has had the privilege of connecting with Irene Clements can tell a story of how she has touched the lives of hundreds of children, families, and colleagues through relationships; and many thousands more through her advocacy,” wrote Mayers Pasztor, who is now professor emerita of the school of social work at California State University, Long Beach and curriculum developer, trainer and consultant for the Child Welfare League of America. “The passion for compassion and commitment that she has shared over the decades was evident even then.”
While Clements will be missed, she says she won’t be far away and will be available to support Eby and the organization as needed even in retirement.